Brown’s ‘lofty’ Purple Line plans draw fire from transportation officials

Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2006

Looking far past the November election, Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Anthony G. Brown has suggested Maryland should begin planning ‘‘lofty” transportation projects that would extend the Purple Line into Virginia and add bridges over the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.

Brown and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley’s campaign aides quickly tried to temper the reaction to the proposals, saying Brown was simply laying out long-range plans. Even so, state transportation officials said the Purple Line idea would bankrupt the state. Environmental groups objected to the bridges.

In a meeting with The Gazette editorial board last week, Brown said he would like to take the Purple Line — a 14-mile Bethesda-to-New Carrollton transit link — around the Capital Beltway and across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge into Virginia. He also said the state’s long-term transportation ‘‘vision may include” new Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay crossings — two lightning-rod issues for environmentalists.

‘‘We’d like to see the Purple Line go from Bethesda to across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge,” he said. ‘‘Let’s swing that boy all the way around.”

Asked if his plan was too ambitious, considering the disagreement between local officials and state officials about the first 14-mile stretch, Brown said, ‘‘You’ve got to set lofty goals.”

His Purple Line idea should be viewed as a goal, but he did not say how it would be paid for, adding that he was not sure if he would support a dedicated funding source for mass transit as some business and transit advocates are promoting.

‘‘Everything you talk about is going to cost money,” Brown said. ‘‘The need to some day fund those programs should not prevent you from identifying those programs and initiatives that we so desperately need to address the issues of transportation.”

After being asked about Brown’s Purple Line comments, Hari Sevugan, an O’Malley campaign spokesman, stressed repeatedly that the campaign’s priority is to build the Montgomery County portion of the Purple Line and that extending it into Virginia should be viewed as ‘‘long term.”

Sevugan pointed out that the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge has dedicated lanes for transit.

The O’Malley campaign supports a dedicated funding source for mass transit, Sevugan said, but would not specify where the money would come from. The Greater Washington Board of Trade has called for a portion of the state’s sales tax to be dedicated to transit, but that is unpopular with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and rural lawmakers who complain that mass transit benefits urban areas to the detriment of others who often have to drive long distances to work.

Martin O’Malley did not give an outright endorsement to extending the Purple Line across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge into Virginia, but he said Friday that extending light rail across the bridge into Virginia is an ‘‘exciting concept.” O’Malley said transportation officials from Maryland and Virginia should be discussing the idea.

The Purple Line has been the subject of some debate between advocates and state officials. The advocates envision a light-rail line. The state, which calls the project the Bi-County Transitway, is studying bus rapid transit for the project.

One light-rail advocate, Webb L. Smedley with the Coalition to Build the Inner Purple Line, praised Brown for his long-range thinking.

‘‘Those things should be studied, but it’s important to focus on something that can get done,” said Smedley, a Silver Spring resident.

Brown’s comments on the Purple Line did raise concern about the prodigious cost and community impact that such a transit line would cause.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan criticized Brown’s comments as ill-informed and reckless. Building a rail line as Brown suggested had been studied and abandoned by the Glendening administration because of inordinate costs and low ridership concerns, he said.

‘‘That’s the kind of thinking that could bankrupt the entire transportation budget and the entire state,” Flanagan said. ‘‘It shows an inclination to make promises without information and experience.”

Betsy Johnson, chairwoman of the Maryland Sierra Club, said she was pleased that Brown was discussing a rail link across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, but was unenthusiastic about the Potomac River and Bay crossings. ‘‘Bridges are another question,” she said.

The Sierra Club has endorsed the O’Malley-Brown ticket, but did so without discussing the bridges, Johnson said.

Another bridge across the Chesapeake would mean more development on the Eastern Shore, which the Sierra Club has been fighting. A state task force declined to make any specific recommendation on another Bay span because the issue is radioactive politically for the communities involved.

At first, Johnson declined to comment on Brown’s statements.

‘‘I think we ought to have that discussion with him,” she said. ‘‘We’re not in favor of another bridge across the Potomac, let’s just leave it at that.” Then she added, ‘‘If they’re talking about roads, they’re not very different than what Ehrlich is talking about.”

Brown did not commit to any specific bridge locations, but the state’s long-term ‘‘vision” could include the new spans, which would have to be worked out with local and state officials.

Andrea Arnold, the Montgomery County campaign director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said development interests in Virginia are pushing for the construction of a bridge. ‘‘I don’t think a governor or a lieutenant governor in this state should be supporting those development interests,” she said.

‘‘We need to do some outreach with Mr. Brown, showing that bridge is not necessary,” said Dolores Milmoe of the Audubon Naturalist Society. A ‘‘second crossing” of the Potomac is ‘‘something that looks good on paper, but I think Tony Brown needs to understand there’s no need for this bridge,” she said.

Although supporters call it a ‘‘second crossing,” eight other bridges and White’s Ferry provide routes across the river between Point of Rocks in Frederick County and Prince George’s County.

‘‘I think probably they’re not aware of the local jurisdiction’s concerns about this thing and once are educated, they’ll reconsider such visions,” Milmoe said.